Diet-cancer link under scanner

Dr Jame Abraham | 01-February-2014

Detailed News

Diet-cancer connection has been under thorough investigation  as diet seems to be emerging as the major cause of cancer. Though vegetables and fruits are linked to risk reduction of different types of cancer, it is not possible to conclude at present that a vegetarian diet has any special benefits for the prevention of cancer. However, the best advice is to eat more vegetables and fruits every day to prevent cancer 


By Dr Jame Abraham

Diet and cancer

Each scientific study provides another clue to the evolving mystery of how diet affects cancer. But some clues hold more weight than others. Since cancer isnt going to confess to what caused it, no single piece of evidence gives us all the answers. The body of evidence formed by many studies must be considered as a whole as we investigate the mystery of the diet-cancer connection.  

What we eat matter  

Now, tobacco is the number one cause of cancer, but diet is rapidly evolving as the major cause of cancer in the world, especially in the west. In many emerging markets, such as India, due to change in the lifestyle and rapid adaptation of the western food habits, diet will emerge as a major cause of cancer. This is true about breast cancer, prostate cancer and colon cancer. This is mainly due to high fat, low fruits and vegetable diet. 

Tea reduces cancer risk

Researchers have suggested that tea protect against cancer because of its antioxidant content. In animal studies, some teas (including green tea) have been shown to reduce cancer risk. At this time, tea has not been proven to reduce cancer risk in humans.

Vegetables, fruits

In most of the studies looking at large groups of people, eating more vegetables and fruits has been linked to a lower risk of lung, oral, esophageal, stomach and colon cancer. Since we dont know which of the many compounds in these foods are most helpful, the best advice is to eat five or more servings of an assortment of colourful vegetables and fruits each day.

Cruciferous vegetables

Cruciferous vegetables belong to the cabbage family and include broccoli, cauliflower, brussels, sprouts and kale. These vegetables contain certain compounds thought to reduce the risk for colorectal cancer. The best evidence suggests that eating a wide variety of vegetables, including cruciferous and other vegetables, reduces cancer risk. 

Fresh, frozen, canned vegetables and fruits

Fresh foods have the most nutritional value. But frozen foods can often be more nutritious than fresh foods because they are often picked ripe and quickly frozen whereas fresh foods may lose some of their nutrients in the time between harvesting and eating. Canning is more likely to reduce the heat-sensitive and water-soluble nutrients because of the high heat that must be used. Be aware that some fruits are packed in heavy syrup, and some canned vegetables are high in sodium (salt). Choose vegetables and fruits in a variety of forms.

Boiling vegetables, especially for long periods, can leach out their content of water-soluble (B and C) vitamins. Microwaving and steaming are the best ways to preserve these nutrients in vegetables.

Vegetable and fruit juices 

Juice can add variety to the diet and can be a good way to consume vegetables and fruits. Juicing also helps the body absorb some of the nutrients in vegetables and fruits. But juices may be less filling than whole vegetables and fruits, and often contain less fiber. Fruit juice in particular can account for quite a few calories if large amounts are drunk. Juiced products should be 100% vegetable or fruits. They should also be pasteurised to kill harmful germs.

Vegetarian diets

Vegetarian diets include many healthful features. They tend to be low in saturated fats and high in fiber, vitamins and phytochemicals. It is not possible to conclude at this time, however, that a vegetarian diet has any special benefits for the prevention of cancer. Diets, including lean meats in small to moderate amounts, can also be healthful. Strict vegetarian diets that avoid all animal products, including milk and eggs, should be supplemented with vitamin B12, zinc, and iron, especially for children and women after menopause.

Vitamin A, C, D and E

Vitamin A (retinol) is obtained from foods in two ways: it can be pre-formed from animal food sources (retinol) and made from beta-carotene in plant-based foods. Vitamin A is needed to maintain healthy tissues. Vitamin A supplements whether in the form of beta-carotene or retinol have not been shown to lower cancer risk, and high-dose supplements may, in fact, increase the risk of lung cancer in current and former smokers. And retinol can cause serious problems if too much is taken.

Vitamin C is found in many vegetables and fruits, especially oranges, grapefruits, and peppers. Many studies have linked intake of foods rich in vitamin C to a reduced risk of cancer.

Vitamin D may have helpful effects on some types of cancer, including cancers of colon, prostate and breast. Vitamin D is obtained through skin exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation and diet, particularly products fortified with vitamin D such as milk and cereals. But many Americans do not get enough vitamin D.

The current national recommended levels of intake of vitamin D (200 to 600 IU per day) may not be enough to meet needs, especially among those with little sun exposure, the elderly, dark skinned, and babies who only take in breast milk. More research is needed to define the best levels of intake and blood levels of vitamin D for cancer risk reduction, but recommended intake is likely to fall between 200 and 2,000 IU, depending on age and other factors.

Family history

Our family history is extremely important. If you have a strong family history, especially multiple family members under the age of 50 (early onset) have cancer, we worry about an abnormal gene in the family. This is especially true about breast cancer and ovarian cancer. It could be due to a BRCA gene mutation. Strong family history of colon cancer or gastric cancer makes us worry about abnormal genes. 

Uncontrolled cell growth

Cancer, known medically as a malignant neoplasm, is a broad group of diseases involving unregulated cell growth. In cancer, cells divide and grow uncontrollably, forming malignant tumours and invading nearby parts of the body. In our body, cell division is under the control of many signals, checks and balances. Many genes regulate that process. When the genes lose its control and cells grow uncontrollably. That will lead to cancer.

The cancer may also spread to more distant parts of the body through the lymphatic system or bloodstream. There are over 200 types of cancer, and each is classified by the type of cell that is initially affected.


  • The number one cause of cancer worldwide is tobacco which causes cancers in head and neck, lung, esophagus, gastric, pancreas, bladder etc.
  • Cancer harms the body when damaged cells divide uncontrollably to form lumps or masses of tissue called tumours
  • Tumours can grow and interfere with the digestive, nervous, and circulatory systems, and they can release hormones that alter body function.

When a tumour successfully spreads to other parts of the body and grows, invading and destroying other healthy tissues, it is said to have metastasized. This process itself is called metastasis, and the result is a serious condition that is very difficult to treat. 

Dr Jame braham,Director, Tausing Cancer Institute Cleveland Clinic,US

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